Writing is a reflective process. Unlike tweeting or updating status – my friend once said communication on social media was akin to a spinal reflex, and I think there is a grain of truth in it – the process of writing gives me a time to facilitate retrospection and also importantly introspection; to articulate a particular order of things so as to make the world intelligible; to ask appropriate questions which in turn regulate what and how I can observe, think, and understand. Writing creates a locus of comprehension that extends beyond the confine of time and space.
Yet, this modality of reflection has its own condition of possibility. That is to say, reflection through writing is possible when and only when I equip myself with a kind of language to appropriate otherwise a disorderly mixture of sorrow, anger, confusion, disbelief etc. etc.; the immediacy of cognitive reaction; or – allow me to use the obscure Heideggerian concept – the occurent-ness of the mind.
Then, what if I do not have a language to talk about whatever I want to talk about? What if I do not know what and how to write?
The sense of incompetence is what has been encroaching upon me since the horror in Paris. Perhaps, the magnitude of the event is such that in the immediacy of the event it is almost impossible to articulate any rational thought. Perhaps, the unexpectedness of the event is such that it requires a month, a year, or even a decade to grasp it in its entirety. Either way, the sense of incompetence signifies a kind of cognitive failure on my part. To be honest, it is a scary prospect, especially for whom writing constitutes a significant part of her career.
I have to say, though, this incomprehensibility is in and of itself problematic. Why is the terror in Paris incomprehensible, or else why do we think it is so, when this kind of violence has already become a permanent feature of the modern political life? Haven’t we witnessed this kind of asymmetric warfare – or ‘new war’ as some may call it – in the Balkans, Somalia, Afghanistan and other parts of the world? Why don’t we react to the current situation in Syria, Mali, Palestine, Lebanon, and elsewhere in the same way we have reacted to the attacks in Paris? Are the destructions, bombings, atrocities, and crises in those places not worthy of our empathy? Of course, these are rhetorical questions. What has taken place in Paris is incomprehensible, precisely because we presume that such violence is reserved exclusively to those who have not, or are incapable of, appropriating secular democratic forms of political and ideological contestation, because we never imagine that ‘they’ who kill ‘us’ could also be a part of ‘us’. In essence, the incomprehensibility in fact imprints the preconceptions that we have of our society, and in turn other societies. Even our immediate reaction to the attacks manifests the axiomatic binary that is deeply ingrained in our subconsciousness.
We often deal with terror in retrospect. And we often forget, particularly in its immediacy, to deal with it by means of introspection. As Frankie Boyle aptly puts, we tend to go on “psychopathic autopilot” in times of crisis, whereby “history and context become less relevant” and we are made to feel we should scrutinise our own perceptions, attitudes, and actions less closely. But as I once wrote in the wake of the attack on Charlie Hebdo earlier this year, the killing of those cartoonists, editors, police officers, and innocent bystanders, hence the time of crisis, reveals as much about ‘our’ society as it does about ‘their’ society. Of course the nature of the last week’s horror is different from that of the Charlie Hebdo attack. Yet I see undeniable similarity between these two events in terms of an army of metaphors deployed. And those metaphors all fall into a common rubric of binary proposition: ‘us’ and ‘them; inside and outside; the logic of inclusion and the logic of exclusion.
We all know that any binary is problematic, for it not only naturalises qualitative differences between two oppositions, but also constitutes a backdrop against which differences are hierarchised. And yet, the predicament of the modern is that, as Edward Said explains in his writings, every culture requires its competing alter ego. Our identity requires the different, the other. So, this is the dilemma of identity.
As it happened, I was reading some bits of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s On Certainty, when I thought about the dilemma that underlay our reaction to the attacks in Paris.
608. Is it wrong for me to be guided in my actions by the propositions of physics? Am I to say I have no good ground for doing so? Isn’t precisely this what we call a ‘good ground’?
609. Supposing we met people who did not regard that as a telling reason. Now, how do we imagine this? Instead of the physicist, they consult an oracle. (And for that we consider them primitive.) Is it wrong for them to consult an oracle and be guided by it? – If we call this ‘wrong’ aren’t we using our language-game as a base from which to combat theirs?
610. And are we right or wrong to combat it? Of course there are all sorts of slogans which will be used to support our proceedings.
611. Where two principles really do meet which cannot be reconciled with one another, then each man declares the other a fool and heretic.
612. I said I would ‘combat’ the other man – but wouldn’t I offer him reasons? Certainly, but how far would they go? At the end of reasons comes persuasion. (Think what happens when missionaries convert natives.)
Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, New York and London: Harper Collins, 1972: §608-12
Should we ‘combat’ the other man? But how? Obviously, they do not regard the guiding principles of our society as telling reasons. Persuasion does not seem to work. But lex talionis – the law of retaliation – seems insane, because it would drag us into the war they want, the unwinnable war. Besides, as ‘the Citizen’ once said, aren’t those who think themselves masters of others greater slaves than they?
I am still experiencing a form of vertigo, and feeling the sense of incompetence. Probably most of us are. And, I am aware that what I have just written does not elicit any answer to the questions I have been asking myself. Nevertheless, writing certainly helps me to see a possible modality of questioning in times of crisis: introspection.